Regular readers of this column know I've been hard on the place. Two years ago, fed up with the clueless high-society clique who'd appointed themselves to oversee a financial disaster, I politely requested that the station's board of directors step the hell aside. I suggested replacements for them, creative Kansas Citians who would actually have done cool things with the place ("Move Over, Mary," May 20, 2004).
In August that year, I lamented the fact that Union Station was home to the saddest food court in the world. Insultingly, it dared to exist in the room once occupied by the Harvey House Restaurant. To see how low Union Station had sunk, you only needed to order a slice of cardboard pizza, sit in the empty-at-lunchtime room and stare up at the giant black-and-white photographs of the old Harvey House, a bustling and dignified diner that served not only train travelers but also regular Kansas Citians who went there late at night to see and be seen. (Mercifully, the last food-court vendor eventually closed up shop.)
Union Station's interim director, Sean O'Byrne, was looking for ideas on what to do with the whole damn building. I had one request. "All we want are eggs, hash browns and toast," I wrote. "A cheeseburger and fries. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Chocolate cake. Apple pie. A few cups of coffee, late at night, in a booth surrounded by friends. We'd be there all the time" ("Order Up," August 26, 2004).
Long story short, we're going to get some eggs. Andi Udris, the former head of the Economic Development Corporation, ended up in charge of the station. Over the past couple of years, Udris got Union Station's new train museum running and continued other efforts to bring the place back from the edge of oblivion.
On February 24, the board signed off on a plan to convert the food-court space into a diner. It won't be a literal re-creation of the Harvey House, but if they don't muck it up it'll be a real restaurant that's at least sufficiently reminiscent of the original Harvey House.
And there's a twist.
It comes in the form of a maintenance man named Richard Cargo who turns out to be a phenomenal cook.
Cargo was born in Memphis in 1946 and learned how to cook from his grandmother, Lula Rogers. The first thing he remembers learning how to make was a pineapple-coconut cake. "I liked mixing the flour, the sugar, the butter and the milk, and what it formed," he says. "I knew I had a feel for baking things. "
As an adult, he worked for the national Armour Foods company, first on the night cleanup shift and later cooking hams and delivering meat. Cargo came to Kansas City in 1976 and ended up as a high-rise-apartment manager for the Housing Authority. But he kept cooking, baking cakes for special events and desserts for Housing Authority picnics. In 1981 he opened a bakery of his own at 12th Street and Chestnut, making 6-inch pies that sold in gas stations, liquor stores and 7-Elevens. Eventually the money ran out, and Cargo went back to home repair and real estate management. He continued to bake wedding cakes and pies two wedding cakes a week, as many as eight or 10 pies a day in his house, with its big kitchen and dining room, at 21st Street and Montgall.
Union Station reopened in November 1999, and the next year, Cargo went to work there as a "technical services engineer," setting up exhibits, caring for them, taking them down. At first, he says, he didn't pay much attention to the significance of the building. But then one day he was working in the station's basement. "It looked like hell," he says. "A really old, dusty-smelling, echoey, moldy-type place." The station's subterranean corridor stretched east to Crown Center and west to Broadway. "It felt sort of scary, because supposedly there were ghosts but I never ran across any."